CHURCHES AND MEMBERSHIP
Both Universalist and Unitarian denominations have congregational polity, consequently local churches are of paramount importance, are autonomous and have the final authority. It is the delegates from the churches assembled in national business meetings who determine the major policies and direction of the denominational organization. Relationships between churches and denominational headquarters are voluntary. Headquarters can request, but not demand data and churches cooperate fully but each year a significant number do not. Churches often have no regular practice of keeping rolls up-to-date, sometimes they do not conform to the definitions for statistics furnished by the denominational headquarters. Consequently there are ever-present weaknesses in denominational statistics which go back to the inadequacies and inaccuracies of church reports.
The analysis of churches and memberships, nevertheless, must depend on the statistics which are available. In larger denominations various types of inaccuracies tend to cancel each other out; in smaller denominations, however, this is less apt to be the case. Just what the inaccuracies are is not simple to estimate. It must also be remembered that the spirit, vitality and usefulness of a church may not have any relationship to its size or growth. Not all large churches have outreach and growing edges, but without these may serve well the needs of their members and are harmonious and cooperative; on the other hand, not all small churches are simply struggling to keep from closing their doors permanently. It is necessary, nevertheless to take account of stock and to find the direction of the changing patterns. Comparisons must be made with care and trends interpreted for directions more than distance. This chapter presents the most accurate picture which can be drawn from the facts provided.
The data about the Universalist and Unitarian Churches have been analyzed to show the changing numbers of churches and their membership, the relationship of size of church to size of community, the federated churches, the fellowships, the active local units and the location of churches.
Table 1 gives the comparison of the Universalist and Unitarian churches and their membership as recorded in the U.S. Census of Religious Bodies.
TABLE 1 — Number of churches and size of church membership of the Universalist and Unitarian churches according to the U.S. Census of Religious Bodies for 1890, 1896, 1916, and 1926. *
*Census of Religious Bodies, 1926, Washington: Government Printing Office 1928; Universalist, Table 2; Unitarian, Table 2.
In 1890 there were two and one quarter times as many Universalist as Unitarian churches, hut the membership in Unitarian churches was more than one-third larger. In both denominations, churches were growing fewer but larger though the Universalist churches have been consistently smaller.
Table 2 compares the number of Universalist and Unitarian churches with data from the denominational records for more recent years in activity categories. Reports use the term active to mean a church ordinarily having a settled minister. Whether this definition was applied consistently in each of the years is unknown
TABLE 2 — Number of Universalist and Unitarian Active, Inactive, and Summer Churches
in 1935, 1945, 1958.
* Denominational reports.
a Special count in June, 1958.
b Includes 14 of the 29 Universalist-Unitarian federated churches and 36 Universalist-Other Denomination federated churches.
c Includes 46 dormant and 16 dropped churches which are held on denominational rolls awaiting instructions from State Conventions; only a Convention can drop a church from the roll.
d Includes 15 of the 29 Universalist-Unitarian federated churches and 22 Unitarian-Other Denomination federated churches.
For a time, both denominations showed a decreasing number of active churches, although the Unitarians showed a gratifying upturn between 1945 and 1958. For many years the number of Universalist churches exceeded those of the Unitarians. How many in each denomination were preaching stations is not known. The reasons for the continuing Universalist decline are not known altogether. In part it may reflect changing methods of securing and using denomination-wide statistics although there is little likelihood that this possibility accounts for any significant part of the diminishing numbers. The difference in the patterns of change in the two denominations can probably be ascribed to the fact that the Unitarians faced and met their problems through a very comprehensive study in the 1930’s and which the Universalists similarly faced and are meeting theirs in the late 1950’s.
Size of Church and Size of Community
The distribution of the churches of the two denominations by size and the type of community in which they are located are given in Tables 3 and 4.
TABLE 3 — Distribution of Active Universalist Churches by Membership Size-Groups and Size-Groups of Communities: 1958*
*Legal members. All federated churches excluded. Includes 19 Summer Churches.
TABLE 4 — Distribution of Active Unitarian Churches by Membership Size-Groups and Size of Communities: 1958*
*Legal members. All federated churches excluded. Includes 6 Summer Churches.
Two striking facts are revealed by comparison of the data in Tables 3 and 4. Over half of the Universalist churches (56.6 per cent) have less than 100 members while half of the Unitarian churches are twice as large or larger (10.7% + 15.1% + + of 51.7 or 25.8 - 51.6%). The reason for it is that 59.5 per cent of Universalist churches are in communities of less than 10,000 population and 56.2 per cent of the Unitarian churches are in communities of over 25,000 population. The model size of Unitarian churches is in the 200—300 size group. Two per cent of the Universalist churches and 10.7 per cent of the Unitarian churches are above the 500 membership mark.
Whatever the cause of these differences and they are probably in part historical, in part economic, in part sociological, and perhaps even theology enters in, there appears to be a tendency of Universalist churches to serve people in small places and of the Unitarian churches to serve people in more urban places. These seem to be clear complementary aspects of the two denominations.
Besides the regular Universalist and Unitarian churches, each of the denominations is involved in federated churches. They represent 13.4 per cent of all types of churches in both denominations. Altogether, there are 87 federated churches: 29 Universalist—Unitarian churches or Uni—Uni, 22 Unitarian—Other denominations, and 36 Universalist—Other denominations. These are distributed by membership size and by size of community in Table 5.
TABLE 5 — Distribution of Federated Churches by
Size of Membership and by Size of Place
of Location According to Affiliation: 1958.
The Uni-Uni churches follow very much the same pattern of distribution as the regular active Unitarian churches. The other churches federated with other denominations tend to be small (88 per cent under 300 membership) and located principally in places of under 10,000 population (63 per cent).
In addition to churches, each denomination has another type of local unit known as the fellowship. These are always accounted separately in both denominations. It is hoped that most of the fellowships may attain church status, but there is recognition that there are situations in which by reason of preference on the part of the members of the fellowship, or because of other factors, the attainment of church status is not feasible. Most do, however. Fellowships serve a distinct need and are economical in that they afford an opportunity to experiment with meeting the needs of liberal religion in a community before making any heavy capital commitments for buildings and equipment.
In the A.U.A. a staff member of the Department of Extension gives most of his time to promoting, organizing and helping local groups of people to maintain regular meetings and other activities on their own initiative. Regional Directors are expected also to service these groups as they can. Occasionally very small amounts of money are given to groups for special purposes. As of June, 1958, there were 245 Unitarian fellowships.
The U.C.A. has regarded fellowship work as “church gathering” or to put it another way, this has been the plan for developing new churches. A likely place is selected where some interested people are known to live, a minister is employed with Department of Extension funds to develop a fellowship and subsequently a church. This method has proven expensive and slow to develop new churches. The U.C.A. department is undertaking a new fellowship program similar to the A.U.A. plan, beginning in the Fall of 1958. At present, there are nine fellowships in full affiliation and others in various stages of development and negotiation.
The distribution of fellowships by membership size and size of place of location in Table 6 shows that characteristically fellowships are between 15 and 44 in size and are found in medium-large cities. The distribution is of wide range, however, except for those over 100 membership which is the point when they may become churches.
TABLE 6 — Distribution of Unitarian and Universalist Fellowships According to Size
of Membership, and Size of Location: 1958.
Many Unitarians justly feel that the fellowship movement is most promising in current Unitarian advance. The change in fellowship policy among Universalists should produce important results.
A comparison of the number of all local active units of the two denominations is shown in table 7.
TABLE 7 — Comparison by Numbers of the Various Types of Active Local Units of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations: 1958.
* Does not include 23 occasional churches.
Location of Churches
It is very interesting to observe that Unitarians and Universalists in the United States have stayed out of each other’s “territory” to a considerable extent. Although according to the 1956-57
A.U.A. Yearbook and the special June, 1958 count of Universalist churches 395 and 297 cities or places are represented, respectively, there are only 33 cities or places in which one or more regular, active church of each denomination is found. There are two other cities where one regular, active Universalist church and one A.U.A. fellowship are found. While no special tabulation of metropolitan areas was attempted due to the fact that no list of the places and their populations within each metropolitan area is issued by the U.S. Census Bureau, observation and general knowledge of such areas leads to the hypothesis that such areas would d contain many A.U.A. churches and a goodly proportion of U.C .A. churches.
Charts 1 and 2 indicate the general distribution of the churches and fellowships of each denomination. The numbers of churches and fellowships shown in the charts are of Spring 1957 and consequently differ slightly from the numbers used in the tables of this report. Although both movements were originally New England religio—cultural phenomena, the maps easily suggest that New England is no longer the geographical center of either denomination.
The problem of counting individuals in any population, geographical area, institutional membership, kind of people, etc., is not as simple as it sounds. Mistakes of many kinds can creep in and those who find the results in disagreement with their expectations will put great emphasis upon the errors. In large populations, errors tend to be proportionately small and to cancel each other out to some extent. In small populations, however, errors and omissions tend to be relatively more significant.
When it comes to counting membership, and this is especially true in churches of all kinds, there are special problems: what is a member, how long is one kept on this roll when his activity ceases, can the institution afford to lose prestige by registering too small members, is it important to take the time to fill out report blanks accurately with up-to-date statistics? In compiling denominational statistics all of these difficulties are multiplied many times. It is interesting to note, the years when the Census of Religious Bodies was made, the census report indicated more churches and more members than the respective denominational reports of the Universalists and Unitarians. The reasons for the differences are not clear.
In the final analysis denominational reports provide the data which are available, the errors are usually much less than is generally thought, and whatever errors there may be, they are not of great importance if the statistics are used for general analysis rather than specific accounting.
Looking back to Table 1 and adding the data presented in Table 8 a general picture of trend patterns can be seen. The Universalist churches reached the peak of membership around 1906, then gradually lost membership until the total was a little more than one-third less at the bottom in 1955 with about 41,000 members. The Unitarian churches did not reach their peak of membership until about 1916 from which they dropped more than a quarter in about a decade then started up to reach an all-time high in 1957 of 95,590. Both denominations are now on an upward trend though the Unitarians have a long head start having gotten their house in order in the 1930’s, a job which the Universalists postponed until 1955.
TABLE 8 — Legal Membership in Universalist and
Unitarian Churches 1935, 1945, 1957*.
*Data from denominational reports.
Although a definite part of church organization and program, church schools and their memberships are usually counted separately. Some data are included here to give an idea of the number and collective memberships of church schools in each denomination.
TABLE 9 — Number of Unitarian and Universalist Church Schools and Members, 1905 to 1957.
* NA — Not Available
a — Data Incomplete
It will be seen that for a time the number of Universalist church schools and their collective membership exceeded those of the Unitarians. Only in the last decade did the Unitarians catch up and pass the Universalists in this activity.
An accounting for all memberships in churches, in fellowships, and in the Churches of the Larger Fellowship of the two denominations together is given in Table 10.
TABLE 10 — Total Memberships of Churches, Fellowships and Church of the Larger Fellowship in the Unitarian and Universalist Denominations: 1958.
a April 30, 1957, A.U.A. Yearbook
b June 15, 1958, U.C.A. General Secretary
c April 30, 1958, A.U.A. Director of Fellowships
Thus the Unitarians total membership picture exceeds that of the Universalists by approximately 63,900 persons or 149 per cent. Putting it another way, there are 2.5 Unitarians per Universalist. Collectively there are less than 150,000 persons who have a legal membership status in Unitarian and Universalist churches. If Sunday School children who are not legal members and all others who attend but do not join churches were included, it is probable that the total number would be in excess of 225,000 persons.
In bare outlines, the main statistics as to churches and other local units and membership of the two denominations are shown in Table 11.
TABLE 11 — Total Number of Local Units and
Membership of Unitarians and Universalists a
a Dormant or inactive units omitted
b Excluding 23 occasional churches
What the ultimate size of each denomination may attain is a matter of conjecture. Any institution has selective factors which tend to place a ceiling on its growth. What these factors may be in the case of either denomination cannot now be ascertained, but it is safe to assume that Unitarianism and Universalism will continue to grow but not indefinitely at their present rates. Of course, any marked changes in the cultural pattern or major changes within either denomination will change the selective factors and consequently the pattern of development.
This chapter has endeavored to present a comparative picture of the numbers, sizes and locations of the churches and fellowships of both denominations. No effort was made to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each church and fellowship since time and expense would not permit such a monumental task. Suffice it to say that both denominations have some strong and also some weak churches and that collectively, according to general opinion, the Unitarians exceed the Universalists in the matter of relative strength of churches, although the degree of difference on a national basis is not known. It is hardly to be expected that all denominations would register equally on any scale devised to assess the collective strengths and weaknesses of their individual local units. All of this is a matter of relativity and in the absence of conclusive data on the basis of adequate yardsticks, the situation must be weighed by individuals concerned on the basis of their own knowledge and experience.